The Geolocative in Digital Humanities

“Thirty years ago, when Baudrillard declared the map a “precession of simulacra” (1), he glimpsed the way media would proliferate as local and mobile, a superabundance of “information devour[ing] its own content” (80)”.

This is how Kathi Iman Berens opens what she calls her Curatorial Statement, or, Mobile and Geolocative E-lit: Private and Public Literatures. Using Baudrillard and his much mentioned simulacra (a connection and phrase that I have myself employed when discussing digital maps and their use in the humanities) Berens continues to helpfully examine and describe the position and role of the geolocative at the 2012 MLA Electronic Literature Exhibit.

Citing Bakhtin, Edward Casey, Ian Bogost and Jason Farnam alongside Baudrillard, Berens provides a useful way of starting to think about the impact of the geolocative on various humanities – in this case, specifically, literature. Someone else Berens mentions who is associated with an important term for discussion Miéville’s work is Kate Armstrong. Her experiments with the psychogeographical remind us that Miéville’s fiction is not the only place where the “crosshatch” between the human mind and the geography that surrounds them is explored. As Berens states, it is “the effects of the environment on the perception, behaviour and mood of individuals” that is studied by Armstrong and fellow explorers of psychogeography, not irrelevant to Miéville’s dual yet single cities, separated more in mind than in geography.

What Armstrong’s essay – alongside other writers, specifically Elizabeth Grosz and Jason Farnam, highlights, is the idea that

The most striking transformation heralded in by digital technologies is “the change in our perceptions of materiality, space, and information, which is bound directly or indirectly to affect how we understand architecture, habitation, and the built environment”. (Grosz cited by Farnam, 36)

And perhaps, because as Grosz states, “Fantasies about the future are always, at least in part, projections, images, hopes, and horrors extrapolated from the present, though not simply from the present situation but from its cultural imaginary” (Architectures, 49), Miéville’s cities are precisely that, a fantasy of the future (set perhaps in the recent past), carrying the hopes and horrors of a data saturated society, in which the dichotomy between connected and not connected, networked and not networked, are upheld as sharply, and invisibly, as Breach upholds the distinctions between Ul Qoma and Besźel. No one can say if the distinction is real, or what it means, but it is indisputably there.

It is perhaps because of this that Besźel and Ul Qoma can become so different, though they share the same physical space. The cities, not necessarily the physical or geographical but the political, economical, and cultural, “can be seen as a (…) boundary that enframes, protects, and houses while at the same time taking its own forms and functions from the (imaginary) bodies it constitutes” (Grosz, Architectures, 50).

Similarly, “here” and “there” do little to explain to us the experiences and boundaries of Besźel and Ul Qoma – much like Farnam’s “virtual” and “real” “do little to inform our embodied experience of this kind of space, especially in an age when the perceptive interaction with the digital offers a significant embodied experience” (emphasis mine, Farnam, 36). What I would like to suggest, then, is that the dichotomy between the cities Miéville has created have several qualities in common with the perceived dichotomies between the “real” and the “virtual”, between “cyberspace” and “meatspace”, and that the cities in general have a lot in common with the post eversion world.

To really pinpoint this, I have as an experiment replaced the word “network” with Ul Qoma in a quote from The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, and posited this as the understanding of the cities as it is put forward by Inspector Borlú when he exists in Breach – post- and pre Breach versus post- and pre-eversion.

“The network is no longer (…) a place you “visit” as if it were another planet. It’s right here all around us, the water in which we swim. Moreover, we made it, or at least we contribute our own data to it daily, whether fully aware or fully consenting or not.” (Jones, 20).

Versus

The other city, Ul Qoma, is no longer (…), a place you “visit” as if it were another planet. It’s right here all around us, the water in which we swim. Moreover, we made it, or at least we contribute our own data to it daily, whether fully aware or fully consenting or not.

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